Baumbach depicts painful family drama in Netflix original film
Family is complicated. The bond, not chosen by humans, is strange, asking for people to choose to love each other when they were forced into the relationship themselves. Director Noah Baumbach is not a stranger to this family story and in his latest film, in collaboration with Netflix, tackles the tales of a family dealing with age and illness. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is a tender film, brimming with characters full of misplaced care.
Danny, Jean and Matthew Meyerowitz are all adults reckoning with the feeling of childhood under the shadow of their father, Harold. Dustin Hoffman plays the doddering Harold, who clings to his past as an artist, despite his lack of fame or critical acknowledgement. Adam Sandler makes a dramatic turn as Danny, channeling his perennial filmic anger into the life of an overshadowed son. Jean, the heart of the movie, is played by the wonderful Elizabeth Marvel. Ben Stiller is Matthew, a businessman trying to distance himself from his childhood. When Danny comes to his father in order to move back in and Matthew briefly visits New York, the three children come face-to-face with their father’s aging and the family care involved.
Baumbach creates family tension through his dialogue. Harold speaks meticulously and with carefully chosen words. His language is that of an artist, compared to the more natural language from Danny and Matthew. Jean is particular with her words as well, but in an awkward way. It is unclear whether she suffers from mental illness or from past trauma, but Marvel’s acting evokes both possibilities with a sense of vulnerability. Their words not only clash in style — family members speak over one another, everyone pressing their words on top of the other’s in a way which at times feels contrived, but creates a sense of movement and drama.
Meyerowitz tells the story of age in two directions. Danny, Jean and Matthew are all stuck in their childhood in some way, while Harold is accelerating into old age. His white beard hints at a man out of place in time. He is a sculptor, yet he has made little of his career, having more impact with the students he has taught. He watches a colleague being celebrated for his work, while he struggles to even be allowed into the exhibition. Meanwhile, the siblings are treated like children by their father and are unable to break out of his expectations.
This film is clearly cemented in cinematic history as Baumbach shows his influence on the screen. Allusions to The Shining and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are subtle, and one of the best jokes of the film is in jump-cuts akin to the style of Breathless. But the film most strongly feels like a re-telling of Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums. Anderson’s film also featured Stiller as one of three siblings reckoning with the treatment their father gives them as children. The playwriting of the Tenenbaum children is even reflected in Danny’s daughter’s filmmaking, though the latter is excessively graphic. Here, the film most distinctly diverges from The Royal Tenenbaums in the point of view that it tells. While Anderson’s film is a redemption story for the father, the father in Meyerowitz is somebody to be cared for by his family, as they take the forefront of the narrative.
Each one of them has their own arc, told through sectioned-off parts of the movie, introduced with storybook-style titles. Baumbach’s emotional delivery of the story is most poignant in its hospital room scenes. The three children sit down for meetings with various doctors and nurses, though they are insistent that their father’s first nurse was the best. A doctor informs them that she will be taking a vacation while their father lies in a coma and their bewilderment is one of the most honest moments of the film. There is something off-kilter about the movie. Meyerowitz feels like a great movie, but little moments chip away at its quality.
Baumbach, speaking after a screening of the film at the New York Film Festival, said that he started creating the film with the idea of two brothers fighting in a parking lot and building from there. Every work needs a starting point, but at times the writing feels contrived to the point of forcing moments to happen. The film is quiet in its tendencies and far from a laugh-out-loud comedy. Jokes are often not for the purpose of humor, but for exploring the relationships in the Meyerowitz family. The ounce of humor in Harold telling Danny that he should try his brother’s name as a password on a computer is outweighed by the tragedy of the statement.
As part of being in a family, people have roles that they play. They are somewhere between who they want to be and who they are expected to be. In the language, characters repeat phrases they have said over and over, as they present themselves to different people. A telling conversation is the one where Harold and Matthew talk over lunch, each only speaking of his own interest, ignoring the verbal prompts of the other.
The Meyerowitz children had no choice in who their father was. Baumbach’s storybook film is a sweet, yet flawed depiction of their reckoning with this fact, finding themselves in their father’s shadow.